The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

April 24, 2019

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America's Security

ISI recommends reading through the introductory essay before following the embedded hyperlinks or before working through the course itself. The essay can orient your reading and reflection so that like Caleb and Joshua you are calm and perceptive in the face of the intellectual giants you will find in this land.

America is unique in being the first country to be founded upon a set of universal human principles, including liberty, self-determination, and the consent of the governed. According to the Declaration of Independence, free and independent states are justified by these universal principles in conducting foreign policy—“to levy war, conclude peace, and contract alliances.” And yet, the Declaration also emphasizes the role of practical wisdom—or prudence—in shaping or moderating a state’s pursuit and protection of these principles. Thus, although America is in many ways inseparable from its principles or values, its specific policies must always be constrained by considerations of power, geopolitics, alliances, and economics. As the Founders recognized, unless a country is continually aware of these two sets of considerations, it is doomed either to overextend itself in impractical endeavors or to lose sight of its truest interests, national identity, or political culture.

George Washington

At their best, conservative positions on American national security have reflected an awareness of the twin demands of principle and prudence in foreign policy. Nevertheless, the primary difficulty for politicians and scholars lies in determining what the proper balance between principle and prudence should be. How expansive should the pursuit of principles be? What steps might a nation be justified in taking to protect its populace’s liberties, and what types of relationships should a nation cultivate with other nations? Views on these issues have evolved over time. Although George Washington advised the nation in his Farewell Address to avoid permanent alliances and foreign “entanglement,” it soon became clear that America, as a rising great power, would be unable to follow a strictly isolationist foreign policy. In the words of Robert Kagan, the United States was inevitably drawn into interaction and conflict with the rest of the world, as a result of both its growing liberal, commercial society and its “revolutionary ideology” based on “Enlightenment ideals of human progress and individual rights.”

This tendency crystallized in the twentieth century. From the U. S. entry into World Wars I and II, to the Truman Doctrine, which became the cornerstone of American foreign policy during the Cold War, our national security policies have largely been characterized by extensive engagement with the rest of the world, not without domestic and foreign controversy and criticism. Indeed, during the Cold War and after, and especially following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, we have seen sharp divisions on the issue of U. S. national security, not only between the political Right and Left, but also within conservative thought as well.

This essay will outline the historical evolution of conservative positions on American national security during the Cold War, the “interwar” period of the 1990s, and the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. It will then turn to discuss enduring topics and issues that remain central to considerations of American national security.

I. The Evolution of Conservative Positions on U. S. National Security

The Cold War: Conservative “Realism” vs. Liberal “Idealism”

If there has been a major, thematic divide over the last fifty years between the Left and the Right it has been over the role of power in U. S. foreign policy and the character of the international system generally. Roughly speaking, conservatives have adhered more closely to a “realist” understanding of international politics—which generally views the world as a Hobbesian war of all against all, in which considerations of power, force, and national interest dominate over considerations of justice or morality. In contrast, on the Left, one sees a greater reluctance to embrace power or military force (or the threat of force) as necessary or legitimate means for states to achieve their interests. Instead, one sees on the Left a greater emphasis on justice and morality and a greater advocacy of engagement, multilateralism, and international law—rather than force—as legitimate mechanisms for states to achieve their goals.

George Kennan

During the first few decades of the Cold War, however, the differences between the mainstream Right and the Left on foreign policy were comparatively muted. Although the far Left tended to be a bit more accepting (or even supportive) of the Soviet Union, the national security platforms of both Democratic and Republican administrations were focused on containment of the Soviet Union and opposition to the global spread of communism. This policy of “containment,” especially during the early years of the Cold War, was largely shaped by George Kennan and Paul Nitze, who both served as Directors of Policy Planning under President Truman.

In the famous “long telegram,” written in 1946 at the end of a term as deputy director of the American mission to Moscow, Kennan described the fundamental threat posed by the Soviet Union and outlined what the appropriate response should be. This letter became the basis for an article called “The Sources of Soviet Conduct that Kennan published in the journal Foreign Affairs under the pseudonym “Mr. X.” In this piece, Kennan characterized the Soviet Union as governed by a revolutionary doctrine that called for spreading communism throughout the world. He argued that the only way to respond to such a doctrine was a strict policy of containment—to prevent the Soviet Union from expanding at every opportunity.

Kennan’s arguments became the basis for the Truman Doctrine, which President Harry S. Truman articulated in a speech to a joint session of Congress on March 12, 1947. In this speech, Truman committed the United States to “support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” Although this doctrine was specifically intended to justify economic and military assistance to Egypt and Turkey, both of which were in danger of falling under Soviet control, the Truman Doctrine later became a cornerstone of American foreign policy during the Cold War and was used to justify American efforts to prevent Soviet expansionism anywhere in the world. The policy of containment was subsequently modified and strengthened by Paul Nitze, Kennan’s successor as Director of Policy Planning, who wrote a pivotal top secret paper known as NSC-68, in which he called for a significant build-up of military forces to counter the “Kremlin’s design for world domination.”

Truman and Stalin

Containment largely guided the foreign policies of the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations. Although it was successful in slowing the spread of communism, it did draw the United States into direct opposition with the Soviet Union and Soviet-backed forces—and indeed led to the U. S. involvement in both the Korean War (1950–3) and the Vietnam War (ca. 1960–75).

Conservative “Realism”

It was especially during the Vietnam War that the contemporary differences between the Left and the Right began to take shape. On the Right, the dominant guiding principle was a doctrine of “realism,” which understands states in the international system as primarily pursuing their interests, understood in terms of power.

The conservative “realist” position was represented by the Nixon and Ford administrations, and especially by Henry A. Kissinger, Nixon’s National Security Advisor and later the Secretary of State in the Nixon and Ford administrations. When the Nixon Administration took office, the United States was entangled in the Vietnam War and experiencing a period of political and military decline. Nixon and Kissinger attempted to address this situation by focusing American foreign policy squarely on a more narrow definition of national interest. As Kissinger later wrote, in formulating their conception of realism in U. S. foreign policy, they attempted to find a prudential middle ground between the liberal position that pursued “peace on whatever terms were available,” which in effect “amounted to unconditional and unilateral withdrawal [from Vietnam],” and the “philosophy of Wilsonianism,” which “tried to bring about a global moral order through the direct application of America’s political values undiluted by compromises with ‘realism.’” Thus, although Nixon came to office pledging to extricate the United States from Vietnam, he sought to do so “on terms he defined as honorable at a time when most of the intellectual and much of the political community wanted to get out of Indochina essentially unconditionally.”

This Kissingerian realism was also skeptical of international law, sweeping arms control efforts, and organizations such as the United Nations as vehicles for negotiating peace. It also questioned the efficacy of the liberal position that emphasized “negotiation as an end in itself.” Although Kissinger emphasized that the Nixon Administration was “prepared for an intense period of negotiation,” it was “not willing to let [its] adversaries choose the agenda or the conditions.” As it confronted the Soviet Union, the Nixon Administration attempted to eschew ideology and treated the Soviets as a traditional great power that could be dealt with in terms of a balance of power that could stabilize their relations. It pursued a policy of “détente,” which attempted to relax the tensions with the Soviet Union and introduce additional players into the field such as China, in the efforts to “keep open the possibility that what on the Soviet side had begun as tactics might evolve into a more reliable pattern of coexistence.”

Over time, this Kissingerian realist position came into greater conflict with the liberal, “antimilitarist” wing of the Democratic party, as represented by George McGovern in his unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1972 and Jimmy Carter in his successful bid in 1977. These antimilitarists were much less comfortable with the “realist” view of force as an element of national security and “oppose[d] large scale defense spending, military aid, military intervention, and CIA subterfuge. But the Nixon/Kissinger/Ford brand of realism—and especially its policy of détente—also came increasingly into conflict with a new intellectual movement on the right known as neoconservatism.


The word “neoconservative” began as a term of derision and remains one today (indeed, it has now become more or less a synonym for all things evil), but it does have a distinct ideological orientation. Although the origins of the intellectual movement began much earlier, the term “neoconservative” itself was coined in the mid-1970s to describe a group of liberal intellectuals who broke with the dominant intellectual currents on the Left. As Joshua Muravchik points out, of this group, some neoconservatives, such as Irving Kristol, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and James Q. Wilson, focused more on domestic policy while others, such as Jeane Kirkpatrick and Norman Podhoretz, focused more on foreign policy—though there was of course a good deal of overlap among these groups. On the subject of foreign policy, early neoconservatives generally focused on “the decline of America’s position vis-à-vis the Soviet Union in the wake of the Vietnam war” and criticized the willingness of both the Kissingerian realists and especially the antimilitarist Left to accommodate dictatorships (communist or otherwise) throughout the world.

Ronald Reagan

Neoconservatism’s rise to a prominent position within U. S. foreign policy began with the election of Ronald Reagan. Reagan challenged the dominant Kissingerian realists in the GOP, and their policies of détente and co-existence with the Soviet Union. As William Kristol and Robert Kagan argue in their influential article, “Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy,” Reagan advocated “an ideological and strategic victory over the Soviets,” calling for “an end to complacency in the face of the Soviet threat, large increases in defense spending, resistance to communist advances in the Third World, and greater moral clarity and purpose in U. S. foreign policy.”

At the time, Reagan was derided as a “warmonger,” certainly by the Left, but also by many conservatives who adhered to the Kissingerian approach to foreign policy. These critics looked on with reactions ranging from disapproval to horror as Reagan famously described the Soviet Union as an “Evil Empire,” pushed for major increases in defense spending, and supported the Strategic Defense Initiative (derided by its critics as “Star Wars”). Nevertheless, in the end, Reagan’s principles were largely vindicated and he has been credited by many—and not only by neoconservatives—for setting the stage for the collapse of the Soviet Union.

So what exactly constitutes the “neoconservative position” in foreign policy? Described by Max Boot as “hard Wilsonianism,” neoconservatism diverges from traditional realist notions of Realpolitik, which assume that all great powers behave in the same way in international affairs. Instead, neoconservatives adhered to a somewhat Aristotelian notion that the regime type can shape the character of the populace living in the regime—and subsequently, can shape the regime’s domestic and foreign policy as well. Neoconservatives therefore supported the use of military force, if necessary, to spread American values abroad. As Joshua Muravchik has argued, neoconservatism as a doctrine was comprised of roughly four basic characteristics:


  • “Neoconservatives were moral.” Instead of viewing the contest between the United States and the Soviet Union through the lens of typical (realist) great power politics, “they despised Communism [and] felt similarly toward Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic and toward the acts of aggression committed by those dictators in, respectively, Kuwait and Bosnia.”

  • Neoconservatives were internationalists, for both moral and strategic reasons. By supporting beneficial political and economic policies, the United States could confront growing threats early and far from its borders.

  • Neoconservatives, like most conservatives, “trusted in the efficacy of military force” and shared a skepticism of economic sanctions and international organizations such as the United Nations to solve the world’s problems.

  • And finally, Muravchik argues, neoconservatives believed in the efficacy of liberty and democracy in moderating regimes both internally and externally, expanding the benefits of prosperity, and creating lasting prospects for peace.

The neoconservative position did have its critics, however. Many on the Left, especially among the antimilitarist wing of the Democratic party, continued to view neoconservatives as too hawkish on foreign policy (and explained the American victory in the Cold War as more attributable to internal reforms by then-Premier Mikhail Gorbachev).


On the Right, neoconservatives were criticized by traditional Kissingerian realists as well as a group of self-described “paleoconservatives,” including Patrick Buchanan and other writers such as Thomas Fleming, former long-time editor of the paleoconservative magazine Chronicles, Scott McConnell, and Eric Margolis, editor of the Toronto Sun. This group of conservatives criticized the neoconservatives’ internationalist streak, arguing that this internationalism overextended American capabilities and drew the United States into conflicts that were not vital to its national interest. The paleoconservatives advocated a quasi-isolationist foreign policy and criticized American political and military interventions in the Middle East and the rest of the Third World (and later of the military operations in Bosnia, Kosovo, and the first and second Gulf Wars). Although the political divergence between neoconservatives and their predecessors diminished for a time in the late 1990’s, their differences dramatically re-emerged after the September 11, 2001 attacks.

The Early Post-Cold War Period (1989–2001)

With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the liberation of the Warsaw Pact countries of Eastern Europe in 1989, and later the collapse of the Soviet Union itself in 1991, American national security policy was no longer single-mindedly oriented toward the primary adversary that had dominated its policies since 1945. This early post-Cold War period—which included part of George H. W. Bush’s term and all of the Clinton Administration—was alternatively described as a “return to normalcy” and a “holiday from history” in international politics. In retrospect, the latter seems more the case. Indeed, with the exception of the 1991 Gulf War, the primary military operations during this period were the U. S.-led humanitarian interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo.

Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf

When George H. W. Bush was elected in 1989, his administration returned somewhat to the traditional realist position, which emphasized order and stability over democracy promotion. The primary national security accomplishment of the Bush Administration was Operation Desert Storm, in which the United States led an international coalition that forcefully expelled Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991. Following the war, the Bush Administration left Saddam Hussein in power (on the condition that he verifiably destroy his stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction), arguing that it would have been impossible to hold the coalition together if they had attempted to change the regime. Shortly after the war ended, Bush gave a State of the Union speech in which he declared the existence of a “New World Order.” Although the speech did envision a “world in which freedom and respect for human rights find a home among all nations,” the primary emphasis was on “shared security arrangements” that would assist in maintaining “peace and stability” throughout the Middle East and the world.

Some of the most important accomplishments in American national security involved bipartisan efforts to scale down the enormous nuclear arsenals that were built up during the Cold War and to provide assistance to Russia in reducing the size of its nuclear arsenal and improving the security for its nuclear weapons and related materials. These bipartisan policies were continued through the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations as well.

In contrast to the international focus of previous presidencies, Bill Clinton, running on the political platform “It’s the economy, stupid,” made it clear in his 1992 presidential bid that his primary focus would be on domestic policy rather than foreign policy. Acting on the premise that the United States no longer needed the same levels of expenditures in its military capabilities now that the Cold War had ended, the Clinton Administration shrunk defense spending by $160 billion during its first six years alone.

The Clinton Administration did conduct some significant military operations during its time in office, however. Most notably, in 1994 and 1995, the United States and its NATO allies intervened to stop the ethnic cleansing and genocide being carried out by ethnic Serbs in Bosnia and Kosovo. Owing to opposition by Russia and China in the Security Council, these operations were not undertaken under the auspices of the United Nations. Most conservatives opposed these operations, arguing that such interventions did not serve American interests, though they did receive the support of some prominent neoconservatives including William Kristol and Robert Kagan.

Conservatives have leveled sharp criticisms against the Clinton Administration’s handling of foreign policy, especially following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Critics such as Charles Krauthammer have argued that the Clinton Administration merely deferred addressing many of the strategic concerns that now face the United States. They have argued that Clinton allowed our military capabilities to stagnate, pursued too passive foreign policies toward Russia and China, and was insufficiently aware of the growing threat of international terrorism. (To be fair on this last point, most politicians and pundits on the Left and the Right were insufficiently attuned to the growing threat of Al Qaeda and radical Islam, but the Clinton Administration’s tepid responses to the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, the bombings of the U. S. embassies in 1998, and the attack on the U. S.S. Cole do provide some grounds for such criticism.)

U. S. Foreign Policy Following September 11, 2001

The George W. Bush Administration came into office in 2001 on a fairly traditional realist platform. For example, in an article in the influential journal Foreign Affairs, Bush’s National Security Advisor (and later, Secretary of State) Condoleezza Rice argued that the United States should refocus its foreign policy on a more narrow interpretation of U. S. national interest—emphasizing the necessity of rebuilding our military capabilities and arguing that it was outside of American political and military interests to “build a civil society” in foreign countries (such as was required in the interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo).


Nevertheless, in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the Bush Administration’s foreign policy shifted significantly. Arguing that previous attempts to combat terrorism were inadequate because they treated terrorism as a matter of criminal activity and law enforcement, George W. Bush declared a “War on Terrorism” which would attempt to address the deeper causes of terrorism by confronting the ideological movements and political circumstances that created the breeding grounds for terrorism. The long-term solution for the threat of terrorism, the administration argued, was the spread of freedom and democracy. For example, the 2006 National Strategy for Combating Terrorism argued that:

the long-term solution for winning the War on Terror is the advancement of freedom and human dignity through effective democracy. Elections are the most visible sign of a free society and can play a critical role in advancing effective democracy. But elections alone are not enough. Effective democracies honor and uphold basic human rights, including freedom of religion, conscience, speech, assembly, association, and press. They are responsive to their citizens, submitting to the will of the people. Effective democracies exercise effective sovereignty and maintain order within their own borders, address causes of conflict peacefully, protect independent and impartial systems of justice, punish crime, embrace the rule of law, and resist corruption. Effective democracies also limit the reach of government, protecting the institutions of civil society. In effective democracies, freedom is indivisible. They are the long-term antidote to the ideology of terrorism today. This is the battle of ideas.

In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the Bush Administration diverged sharply from its original skepticism about “regime change” and society building. In 2001 and 2003, the United States spearheaded the military operations to overturn the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein and replace both with democracies. Although these efforts were controversial, the Bush Administration argued that these regime changes and subsequent democratic transitions were necessary for national and international security. In a speech at the American Enterprise Institute in February 2003 (a few weeks prior to the initial invasion of Iraq), President Bush argued that

the current Iraqi regime has shown the power of tyranny to spread discord and violence in the Middle East. A liberated Iraq can show the power of freedom to transform that vital region, by bringing hope and progress into the lives of millions. America’s interests in security, and America’s belief in liberty, both lead in the same direction: to a free and peaceful Iraq.

It was often argued, and it seems plausible, that this fundamental shift in the Bush Administration’s foreign policy was highly influenced, at least initially, by neoconservatives in the administration, including then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, among others. Regardless of whether these claims are entirely sufficient, this new orientation of U. S. foreign policy—and especially the Iraq War—was severely criticized by many on the Left, and by some on the right. Self-described paleoconservatives such as Buchanan, conservative writers such as George Will and Robert Novak, and many libertarians were at best skeptical and often highly critical of the goals of the Iraq war, the feasibility of regime change and subsequent democratization, and the ability of the military intervention to serve American national interests. Others, such as Francis Fukuyama, became increasingly critical of the war, especially as the United States appeared stuck in the middle of an Iraqi civil war with no exit strategy in sight. Kissinger, as well, stated in 2006 that the Iraq war was unwinnable, at least in the terms initially set out by the Bush Administration. In 2007, however, the Bush Administration initiated a “surge” of 30,000 additional troops into Iraq and a change of strategy in the conduct of the war. The surge, combined with a growing Iraqi trust of American soldiers as a result of the surge (and years of direct contact), gave Iraqi Sunnis the confidence to stand up to the thuggery of Al Qaeda forces. This led to the Arab “awakening,” especially in the previously ungovernable and largely Sunni Anbar Province. As things stand in early 2009, the prospects look promising for a much more successful outcome to the Iraq war than its critics—and indeed even many of its proponents—had envisioned.

It is as yet unclear how history will view the legacy of the Bush Administration’s embrace of regime change and muscular democracy promotion. Nevertheless, at least in the short term, the Republican Party has been damaged politically at least in part as a result of these policies—losing control of Congress in 2006 and the presidency in 2008. After these political losses, critics have again declared neoconservatism to be dead as an ideological movement. It remains to be seen exactly how conservatives will reconsolidate their positions on American national security after the election, but there are a number of issues that will remain central components of their political positions.

II. Enduring Themes and Issues in Conservative Thought

Despite the differences among conservative policymakers and pundits described above, there are a number of issues on which there is a good deal of consensus within American conservatism on national security. Because many of the current and potential threats to national security will be enduring, there will likely remain a coherent conservative position on U. S. foreign policy.

“Hard Power” vs. “Soft Power”

Although considerations of power politics have been enduring themes in international relations, hearkening back to Thucydides, the divide between the Left and the Right over the role of power in American foreign policy came most sharply into focus during the Cold War. On the Right, national security analysts tended to be more “hawkish,” advocating a greater reliance on “hard” power projection, especially in the form of nuclear deterrence, to contain the Soviets.

As discussed above, conservatives have generally been more skeptical about the ability of international institutions such as international law and organizations such as the United Nations to achieve the ends of U. S. national security. This does not necessarily entail abandoning international opinion altogether or an exclusive advocacy of unilateralism. But it does suggest that the United States should be unwilling to wait for the approval of the United Nations Security Council or the international community before it pursues its vital national security interests.

We have therefore seen conservative writers question the usefulness of such treaties as the Kyoto Protocol, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in achieving the ends for which they were designed. This, of course, has been a source of great controversy in American domestic politics and tremendous criticism of Republicans when they either prevented the ratification of those treaties (CTBT, Kyoto) or spearheaded the efforts to withdraw from them (ABM).

Conservatives have also at times questioned the efficacy of negotiation and diplomacy as a guaranteed method of resolving international disagreements and achieving peaceful conflict resolution. While such methods should be pursued when they have some reasonable prospect of success, there is a danger of transforming the end of a state’s diplomacy to value continued negotiations over concrete results. Instead, conservatives have often emphasized the credible threat of force as an important precondition or reinforcement for effective diplomacy.

From the conservative perspective, many on the left seem to engage in hopes, at times bordering on delusion, that all nations need to do is talk through their problems and they will go away—and if a nation is unwilling to listen to persuasion, then talk some more—as if there is no such thing as real and consistent national interests that can ever conflict with each other. Instead, conservatives argue, American diplomats should engage in serious efforts at diplomacy, but if there are no credible consequences to America’s adversaries if diplomacy fails, then we can be guaranteed that diplomacy will fail. Correspondingly, a consistent conservative platform has been, and should continue to be, a strong support of military spending, research and development, etc., in order to ensure that the threat of American force remains credible.

There is a considerable divergence between conservatives and liberals on this point; indeed it may remain the most important difference on U. S. foreign policy between the two political positions. For example, conservatives have President Barack Obama’s campaign pledge to meet, without preconditions, during his first term, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, and North Korea. Conservatives have argued that it is not clear what such meetings would accomplish other than unjustifiably increasing the legitimacy and prestige of the leaders of these “rogue” states.

Nuclear Weapons and Deterrence

Nuclear weapons were a central component of U. S. grand strategy during the Cold War. Indeed, they played an important role in the containment strategy devised by Kennan. Other analysts such as Albert Wohlstetter emphasized the potentially stabilizing effects that nuclear weapons could provide—especially in “deterring” an attack from the Soviet Union upon the United States, Western Europe, and other key U. S. allies. Wohlstetter and others also advocated that the United States expand a “nuclear umbrella,” to protect its allies against attacks from the Soviets. This nuclear umbrella was codified in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which stated that an attack on one NATO member constituted an attack on all (and therefore could potentially justify massive retaliation).

Nuclear cloud

The deterrence provided by nuclear weapons during the Cold War helped stabilize the tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. Indeed, the prominent historian John Lewis Gaddis characterized the Cold War as the “long peace,” and argued that nuclear weapons played a vital role in this peace. Nuclear deterrence remained a pillar of U. S. national security policy after the Cold War, as the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations emphasized the continuing need for the United States to maintain a nuclear deterrent capability.

Nevertheless, there have been controversies relating to what steps are necessary to sustain U. S. nuclear weapons capabilities. For example, in 1996, Bill Clinton signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which forbade any party to the treaty from conducting a nuclear weapons test. In October 1999, however, the Republican-controlled Senate refused to ratify the CTBT, arguing that United States needed to retain the right to test its nuclear weapons to ensure their viability (and therefore sustain their deterrent capability) over time. Nevertheless, despite the fact that the United States is not legally bound by the CTBT, it (along with the other nuclear weapons states) has voluntarily adhered to the principles of the CTBT and has refrained testing nuclear weapons since 1992.

The George W. Bush Administration also received tremendous criticism for pushing for research into low-yield nuclear weapons that could penetrate deep into the earth before detonating so as to “threaten hard and deeply buried targets.” The justification for such weapons was that proliferating states are likely to place facilities related to covert WMD programs in hardened or buried facilities. As reported in the 2002 Nuclear Posture Review, it is estimated that there are over 10,000 deeply buried or hardened facilities worldwide, of which at least 1,400 are believed to be related to weapons of mass destruction programs. Proponents therefore argued that the United States should possess the capability to destroy such facilities if need be. Critics argued, however, that such nuclear weapons blurred the distinction between nuclear war and conventional war and set the stage for nuclear weapons to be used for more than deterrence. Faced with extensive criticism, the Bush Administration removed its request for funding of the new weapon in October 2005.

In recent years, there have been renewed efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons, both from inside and outside the United States. Article VI of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) calls for nuclear powers to make progress “in good faith” toward the complete elimination of nuclear weapons, and former senior American government officials have recently called for the United States to eliminate these weapons. To date, however, there have been few realistic prospects for such a total nuclear disarmament actually occurring. Nor is this prospect likely to be embraced by many conservatives. In all likelihood, nuclear weapons will remain a component of U. S. national security policies, as long as other nuclear powers, especially Russia, China, and now North Korea, retain their nuclear arsenals, and as long as others countries such as Iran and Syria are suspected of pursuing these capabilities. Nevertheless, as part of his presidential campaign, Barack Obama pledged to “make the goal of eliminating all nuclear weapons a central element in our nuclear policy.” It remains to be seen to what extent he will be willing or able to implement this campaign pledge.


The strategic consequences of nuclear proliferation have been debated almost since the first nuclear weapons were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Initially, scholars such as F. H. Hinsley, Richard Rosecrance, and the French theorist Pierre Gallois, argued extensively that because nuclear weapons provide such overwhelming deterrent capabilities, nuclear proliferation could actually increase international peace and stability. However, an influential group of scholars and policymakers including Albert Wohlstetter, Fred C. Iklé, Herman Kahn, and Paul Doty questioned whether new nuclear powers (or “nth countries”) would be able to achieve the comparatively stable deterrent relationship that the United States and the Soviet Union had achieved. They also argued that some proliferating states, possibly including Third World states, may lack the capabilities for ensuring controls over their nuclear weapons, thereby increasing risks of accidental nuclear war. In the end, the proponents of nonproliferation were largely able to shape American policies. Although the debate over the comparative benefits of nuclear proliferation has continued to be contested within academia, a consistent theme in all successive administrations—both Democratic and Republican—over the last fifty years has been to oppose the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

The cornerstone for nuclear nonproliferation is the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which committed states that had not already acquired nuclear weapons by that point to refrain from acquiring them. The primary mechanism for verifying that states complied with their NPT commitments was the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which required states without nuclear weapons to submit detailed documentation on their civilian nuclear programs to ensure that they were not using these facilities to support covert nuclear weapons programs. During the Cold War, the goals of nonproliferation were also made possible in part by the extended deterrence provided by the United States to its NATO allies and by the Soviet Union to the Warsaw Pact countries.

In the 1990s, the world saw new nonproliferation threats emerge. Although the threat of cataclysmic nuclear war largely subsided with the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union introduced new risks. The states in the Former Soviet Union began encountering significant difficulties in maintaining control over their nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons technologies, as the security systems that protected these technologies eroded. In order to help address these risks, the United States began a major, bipartisan initiative known as Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR), which provided assistance to Russia in improving its security systems for its nuclear weapons and related materials. Since its inception in 1990, CTR—along with a parallel program called Material Protection Control and Accounting—has made significant progress in reducing the risk that Russia’s nuclear materials and technologies might fall into the wrong hands. But a great deal needs to be done. There are still serious questions about Russia’s capabilities.

Also, the discovery of the nuclear weapons programs in Iraq and North Korea in the early 1990s raised fundamental questions about the capabilities of nonproliferation mechanisms, such as those maintained by the IAEA, to ensure that states are not covertly pursuing nuclear weapons. Moreover, the decade-long standoff during the 1990s over the international community’s efforts to verify the dismantlement of Iraq’s WMD programs also raised questions about the will of the United Nations Security Council and the international community generally to oppose the nuclear weapons programs that had been discovered in proliferating states.

The dangers of WMD proliferation have only increased in recent years. In addition to continuing concerns over Russia’s ability to control its WMD-related technologies, a number of states not recognized as Nuclear Weapons States under the NPT, including India, Pakistan, North Korea, Iran, and Syria, have continued to acquire technologies that would allow them to produce nuclear weapons and, in a number of cases, have in fact joined the club of de facto nuclear weapons possessing states.

In addition to the specter of nuclear proliferation, there are also increasing concerns regarding the spread of chemical and biological weapons. These weapons, while not as devastating as nuclear weapons, could nevertheless still cause severe casualties and create public hysteria in the event of their use. Despite the clear importance of preventing the proliferation of these weapons, however, the regimes that have been created for this end, particularly the Biological and Toxins Weapons Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention, have significant shortcomings in their verification and enforcement mechanisms. Moreover, given the dual-use nature of many of the technologies that could be used to produce chemical and biological weapons, it is increasingly difficult to identify covert programs.

The threats posed by WMD proliferation were further driven home on September 11, 2001, when the terrorist attacks by Al Qaeda raised concerns that international terrorist groups with radical ideologies might be interested in using WMD to carry out mass casualty attacks. Osama bin Laden has stated that he considers acquiring WMD to be a religious duty, and terrorist groups have reportedly attempted to acquire WMD technologies on several occasions. John Negroponte, the U. S. Director of National Intelligence, summarized these threats in 2006, “Al-Qa’ida remains interested in acquiring chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear materials or weapons to attack the United States, U. S. troops, and U. S. interests worldwide.”

Recent nuclear crises over the demonstrated and suspected nuclear weapons programs in North Korea, Iran, and Syria have raised further questions about what measures may be legitimately undertaken to prevent these states from crossing the nuclear threshold. If the current nonproliferation regimes are to survive, the international community must be willing to take strong steps to enforce the nonproliferation mechanisms when violations occur. Unfortunately, the United States has too often been a lone voice calling for stronger actions by the United Nations Security Council and the international community when such violations have occurred in Iran, North Korea, and Syria.

Despite these troubling shortcomings within the nonproliferation regimes, there is a role for a strong conservative position on the subject of nonproliferation. Conservatives should push for strong and sustained diplomatic efforts by the United States to garner international support—particularly by Russia and China in the UN Security Council, the European Union, and other American allies such as Canada and Australia—for the enforcement of existing nonproliferation regimes. But, it should be recognized, that there may be only so much that diplomacy can accomplish if states are simply unwilling to cooperate.

Conservatives should therefore also strongly support alternative mechanisms for addressing the threat of WMD proliferation, including the Proliferation Security Initiative, which coordinates efforts to search and seize suspect shipments of WMD-related materials and technologies, and a robust missile defense system. On this last issue, Barack Obama pledged during the 2008 presidential campaign to “cut investments in unproven missile defense systems,” but later stated that “I actually believe that we need missile defense because of Iran and North Korea and the potential for them to obtain or to launch nuclear weapons.” Senior military officials have warned President Obama that cutting missile defense could “severely hurt” U. S. interests. Conservatives should apply sustained pressure for the new administration to continue the planned American missile defense system.


Preemption has long been an element in U. S. foreign policy. But the Bush Administration was the first to make preemption an explicit and formal part of its national security policies. For example, the Bush Administration’s 2002 National Security Strategy states that “The United States has long maintained the option of preemptive actions to counter a sufficient threat to our national security. The greater the threat, the greater is the risk of inaction—and the more compelling the case for taking anticipatory action to defend ourselves, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy’s attack. To forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively.”

The military operation to overturn the Baathist regime in Iraq is the clearest example of such anticipatory military force. Strictly speaking, the action in Iraq should be categorized as a preventive rather than a preemptive strike. A preemptive strike would be undertaken when an attack from an adversary is imminent (e.g., when the knife is raised); a preventive strike would be utilized before the attack is imminent (e.g., to prevent an adversary from acquiring the knife in the first place).

The primary justification for such preventive force action is the changing face of contemporary threats. In particular, in the past, the threat of an imminent attack could be fairly clear—either in the form of military build-ups, troop movements, amassing troops on a country’s border, etc. When considering contemporary threats, especially those involving WMD, a state cannot count on such indications of an imminent attack. WMDs could be delivered via ballistic missiles in the space of thirty minutes or could be smuggled into a country and detonated with no prior warning whatsoever. As Bush argued in his 2003 State of the Union address, “Some have said we must not act until the threat is imminent. Since when have terrorists and tyrants announced their intentions, politely putting us on notice before they strike? If this threat is permitted to fully and suddenly emerge, all actions, all words, and all recriminations would come too late. Trusting in the sanity and restraint of Saddam Hussein is not a strategy, and it is not an option.”

By making preemption—and the clear threat of military force—an explicit part of U. S. policies in combating WMD proliferation, the Bush Administration attempted to accomplish an additional goal known as dissuasion. The concept of dissuasion was introduced as a component of the U. S. security strategy by the 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review and the 2002 Nuclear Posture Review. Unlike deterrence, which focuses on convincing an adversary not to undertake undesirable actions, including aggression, dissuasion “is aimed at convincing a potential adversary not to compete with the United States or go down an undesirable path, such as or acquiring, enhancing, or increasing threatening capabilities . . . More specifically, one deters WMD use but one dissuades the acquisition of WMD.” The clearest example of the role of preemption in dissuading a state from pursuing WMD is the case of Libya. At nearly the same time that the United States was embarking on Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, the Libyan government renounced its WMD programs and invited arms control experts in to assist in dismantling these programs. Although this is still a controversial point, the preemption in Iraq undoubtedly played a significant role in Libya’s decision.

Particularly after no significant stockpiles of WMD were found in Iraq, the U. S. position on preventive/preemptive force has been subjected to intense criticism. It is unlikely that the Obama Administration will embrace the explicit emphasis on preemption that we saw in the Bush Administration. Nevertheless, it is also unlikely that preventive/preemptive force will be removed from the range of U. S. policy options altogether. As demonstrated by Israel’s preventive strike on a suspected nuclear reactor in Syria—and the understated international response to this strike—there will be times when preemption will not only be justified but even largely accepted by the international community. Conservatives should therefore emphasize that the threat of preemptive force should remain a serious option in U. S. national security policies, especially toward suspected WMD proliferators such as Syria and Iran.

Democracy Promotion


Throughout the history of the United States, democracy promotion has been a persistent, if controversial, feature of American foreign policy. This was never more clear than during the twentieth century, when the defense of democracies throughout the world became a major foreign policy goal—and a major justification for the use of American military power. For example, in his justification of the U. S. entry in World War I, Woodrow Wilson argued that the United States had both a strategic interest and a moral obligation to “make the world safe for democracy.” Similarly, the Truman Doctrine, which became the cornerstone of American foreign policy during the Cold War, committed the United States to “support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” Even after the Cold War had ended, the Clinton Administration’s 1999 National Security Strategy called for the United States to “promote democracy and human rights abroad.”

But there is a sharp difference between making the world safe for democracy, or a support of “free peoples” justified in terms of containment, and the muscular democracy promotion that we have seen in recent years under the George W. Bush Administration. As noted above, the Bush Administration’s emphasis on democracy promotion as a mechanism for combating terrorism and as a justification for the regime changes in Afghanistan and Iraq has been severely criticized by the left and by many conservatives as well.

One might argue that the period from 2003–5 was the high point for this new conception of muscular democracy promotion and regime change in U. S. foreign policy. During this period, the world witnessed the Purple Revolution, in which millions of Iraqis braved the threats of Islamic militants and voted in their first free elections in history; the Rose Revolution, in which Georgia opposed a rigged Parliamentary election and ultimately ousted then-President Eduard Shevardnadze; the Cedar Revolution, in which widespread protests forced the pro-Syrian government in Lebanon to disband and the Syrian government removed its troops from the country; and the Orange Revolution, in which the Ukrainian populace opposed widespread election fraud in the 2004 Ukrainian presidential election, forced a re-vote, and defeated the corrupt, pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovich. Supporters hailed these events as a vindication for the Bush Administration’s pro-democracy stance.

However, after 2005, this pro-democracy momentum faltered. After the February 26, 2006 bombing of the Shiite Golden Mosque in Samarra by al-Qaeda, Iraq descended into a bloody civil war. Moreover, many of the democratic advances in 2003–5 faltered or regressed entirely. Syrian forces are believed to have re-entered Lebanon. And Yanukovich was subsequently re-elected in Ukraine, undoing many of the democratic advances made there. Although the prospects for success seem much greater following the 2007 “surge” in forces and change of tactics on the ground, the Bush Administration’s policy of regime change and muscular democracy promotion came under severe criticism, both domestically and abroad.

The principle of democracy promotion was further challenged in 2006, following the Palestinian parliamentary elections in the territories of West Bank and Gaza Strip. After the 2004 death of Yasser Arafat, it was hoped that elections in these troubled territories might finally put in place Palestinian leaders who could be held accountable for reigning in terrorism, establishing order, and potentially setting the stage for a permanent solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Instead, the Palestinian people elected Hamas, a militant group that refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist and promotes violence as a means of achieving Palestinian goals. Far from providing a defense of democracy promotion, the 2005 Palestinian election was viewed by many as an additional obstacle to peace in the region.

And yet, despite these challenges, it is not clear that democracy promotion should, or will, be eliminated as an element of conservative (primarily neoconservative) thought—or as a goal of U. S. foreign policy. Reflecting on the lessons of the eight years of the Bush Administration’s foreign policy, outgoing Secretary of State Rice wrote in July 2008 that “We recognize that democratic state building is now an urgent component of our national interest.”

Regardless of their initial views of the Iraq War and the subsequent efforts to establish a peaceful and effective democratic system in Iraq, Republicans should work to consolidate the tentative successes that the United States has achieved in Iraq, to the extent that they can. The fact that President Obama has retained Robert Gates as his Secretary of Defense and appears to be moving away from his pledge to withdraw all American forces within sixteen months of his inauguration bodes well. But Republicans should keep the pressure up for the United States not to abandon Iraq now that things appear to be back on track.

Nor is it clear that the goal of democracy promotion will be eliminated from the new administration’s emerging foreign policy agenda. A key plank of the Obama-Biden campaign’s foreign policy platform committed to “support the building of effective, accountable, and democratic institutions and civil societies that meet the needs of their people.” Moreover, in a January 15 interview, Obama said that democracy promotion “needs to be at a central part of our foreign policy. It is who we are. It is one of our best exports, if it is not exported simply down the barrel of a gun.” It remains to be seen exactly how these ideas will be incorporated into the specific policies of the Obama Administration, or how aggressively this new administration will push for democratization throughout the world, but it does seem likely that the idea of democracy promotion will remain an element of American foreign policy.

III. Conclusion

The results of the 2006 and 2008 elections have undoubtedly caused conservatives to begin rethinking their positions on both domestic and foreign policy. As we have seen, even among self-described conservatives, there is a great deal of divergence on how exactly the United States should best pursue its national security interests—whether it should pursue muscular democracy promotion and internationalism, Kissingerian realism, or Buchananist isolationism. But now is the time for conservatives to seize the opportunity to reconsolidate a sensible conservative position on foreign policy.

What is clear is that there are enduring threats to U. S. national security—including the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, particularly in North Korea, Iran, and Syria; the continuing threat of radical Islam; and traditional power politics that will inevitably come into play with the rise of China and the resurgence of Russia. As we move into an era where U. S. foreign policy may emphasize multilateralism, engagement, and soft power over (and possibly to the exclusion of) power projection, a helpful starting point may be a return to the principles of the Founding, which emphasized prudence as an essential complement to principle.

A sensible conservatism must begin with the idea that the United States must maintain strong military capabilities and the ability to apply these capabilities effectively. Not only are these capabilities necessary preconditions for effective diplomacy, engagement, and soft power, but they are also necessary for deterrence, for reinforcing various international norms, treaties, and regimes, and, if necessary, for the direct application of force in the nation’s defense. The world is not getting any less dangerous. Conservatives must, at the very least, unite on this front against prominent voices from the left, both domestically and abroad, that not only tend to blame America first for the world’s problems, but see any and all application of American power in its interests as morally wrong. As the Founders recognized, the United States must stay true to its essential principles, but prudence—including a careful consideration of both the very real threats to the America’s security and the mechanisms for directly addressing these threats—must not be abandoned either. The stakes are high.

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